We loved Black Dog, the latest album by Australian singer-songwriter Oscar Lush. It’s an album that follows the “age-old folk tradition of guitar-based storytelling,” but is also very much of our contemporary moment, combining the personal, political and mythological to create something wholly unique. Oscar was kind enough to answer some questions about these themes, his creative process and and the album as a whole, so read on below to find out more.
You describe Black Dog as “a record mostly about people.” I was wondering if you could expand on that a little? Are these stories about you and people you know, or are these fictional people that you use as vehicles to convey a message?
They’re mostly very real for sure. Majority of the songs are either autobiographical, or about those closest to me. ‘Pheasant Country’ is a collection of stories from my partner Georgia’s childhood (I spent time in the South of England with Georgia and her grandmother Bridget a few years ago), while ‘Game Show’ is about a strange dream I had, and Fast n Free is a song for my friends who are songwriters and artists – all about falling out of love with the craft and feeling devalued in changing musical landscapes.
The only song that would be more fictional would be ‘Stubborn Fool’. The characters in that song aren’t people I know, but they embody certain kinds of people who the song is directed at.
The image of the black dog is an important one, from the title to the lovely cover art. What does that image mean to you? Do you see it as something foreboding? Or is there another meaning?
I’ll start by saying the painting on the front and back cover was done by my extremely talented partner Georgia Spain. Georgia is an incredible figurative painter and musician (no bias here) and you should check out her work on insta @georgiaspainer
I think symbolically the Black Dog is dual. Embodying depression was the initial thought for me (having been in that place when I started writing the record), but then later loyalty and steadfastness were also really key. Mythologically the black dog or hound is often painted as foreboding, a ghost of death (or as in ‘Stubborn Fool’ hounds of Hecate), but in reality dogs are so loyal and love so strongly – they’re great sources of comfort and understanding for most of us. So it was kind of inevitable that the duality would arise, and I think naturally over time the record developed that arc, from wallowing in my depression and distrust to rediscovering love in the new places I went to and the beautiful people I met.
One of the things I got most from the record is the importance of place, both past and present, good and bad. It’s strongest (and most positive) on ‘Kind Living’. Is it a real place you describe in that song? Of, so where is it and why is it so important to you?
I think place is a really important part of our mental health and wellness, and we need different places at different times in our lives. I was living in a busy bustling inner suburb of Melbourne when my relationship fell apart and being around people and commotion all the time just wasn’t doing me any favours. Unintentionally and in quite a rush I moved to another suburb about 30 minutes further out of the city and the positive effect it had was overwhelming. It was still definitely Melbourne, houses and roads everywhere, but it was near lots of parkland and it was on a quiet residential street where you could hear the birds during the day. From there I just wanted more quiet and nature in my life and have now been living out of Melbourne in the country for just over two years, nestled in the bushland where it’s extremely quiet and peaceful. Don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.
There are several lines, particularly on ‘Stubborn Fool’, that seem to reference the current ecological disaster. I may be looking for something that isn’t there, but is that something you had in mind when writing the record? And how on earth does an artist begin to explore big world-altering themes like that?
Australia is currently going through one of its most appalling political periods. The atrocities our government is committing against refugees, the Aboriginal community (the rightful owners of this land), & the environment is just unbelievable. I definitely wrote stubborn fool about suppressive male figures, politicians and fathers alike, and the damage they cause through their inability to listen and unwillingness to change. We have so little time to do something to fix the environment, and their complete lack of interest, as well as the measures they’re taking to damage our eco-systems further, feels like the final nail in the coffin most days. It was that place of frustration the song came from. I was also thinking about Jeff Tweedy’s tune One Sunday Morning at the time, another song about overbearing fathers. I think big social and world issues are some of the hardest things to write about for sure. It can feel impossible to do them justice or to capture the ideas in one song. But I think songwriting and music is such an important part of inspiring change and some of the best songs to have ever been written were protest songs of some kind – think Archie Roach’s ‘It’s Not Too Late’, Alynda Lee Segarra’s ‘Everybody Knows’, and Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’.
You record under your own name, but many songs on Black Dog sound as complete and rich as any full-band. Who are the people who helped with its creation? And what’s the importance of this collaboration in the writing/recording process?
Very very special people. Engineer Alex Bennett runs the most incredible studio in country Victoria. It’s a fully analogue set up, recording and mixing to tape, housed in an old converted barn. Plenty of natural light and a wood burning stove. The magic of the live room and Alex’s ability to capture the truest sound really gave the record the warmth and honesty it needed. My very very dear friend Matthew Colin picked up the bass specifically to play on this record (as well as Georgia Spain’s) and he plays like no one else I know. The runs he does at the end of ‘Stubborn Fool’ make me smile every time, and his subtle playing on Fast n Free was so on point. Matt’s an incredible songwriter himself (look him up right now) and I think that gives him a very special ear as an accompanier. Another good friend Craig Mattingley came in for a day and laid down all the amazing piano and organ you hear on the record. Beautiful friend and soul Glendon Blazely is responsible for the gloriously lonely and bendy trumpet you hear on Pheasant’s Country, as well as playing the saw on ‘Black Dogs’. And Ben McAtamney stepped in last minute and was the perfect fit for the drums, starting out as a friend of friend and becoming a good friend over the 5 days we spent together. And of course I can’t forget Georgia, who was the inspiration for so many of the songs and who realised the vision I had for the cover so beautifully. The things you discover about yourself, and the malleability of music and songs, by working with other people is invaluable.
Last of all, could you name 3-4 artists that you’d like to share with our readers? They can be old or new, well-known or obscure, its completely up to you.
Georgia Spain – Trouble Isn’t Something You Can Hold – Georgia put out her new record in early May and I just think it’s so so incredible. I learnt the drums for it, Matt learnt the bass – that’s how badly we needed to be part of this!!! Her voice, her lyrics, her songs, she’s just unlike anything else. The songs deal with the death of her sister and how the current state of the world mirrors her grief and growing up and changing with all this going on. Get ready to have a cry.
Lambchop – I’ve been listening to a lot of Lamchop (AKA Kurt Wagner) lately. I think ‘Is a Woman’ is slowly becoming one of my favourite records of all time, and I’ve been delving deeply into ‘Flotus’ as well.
Lonnie Holley – Such an incredible artist and life story. He put out his new record MITH late last year, and it’s an absolute whirlwind of a record – sometimes a nightmare, sometimes a soft dream. A total fusion of everything. We were lucky enough to catch a performance recently in a small bar in Melbourne and it was hands down one of the most incredible gigs I’ve seen. His philosophy and the way he translates it into art is so important in America’s current climate, as well as the world at large.
Grouper – Speaking of incredible gigs, I was also lucky enough to catch Grouper (Liz Harris) performing at the Melbourne Recital Centre recently. The lights were dimmed so so low, you had to squint to see her on stage – sitting with her tape decks and loopers, one guitar & one piano. There was no applause, except at the end, and the songs blended seamlessly into each-other. Never seen a gig that left me feeling so meditative. People were drifting off into sleep all over the hall, but I think that’s what she had intended. Recommended listening – ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’.
Black Dog is out now and you can get it from the Oscar Lush Bandcamp page.